On-The-Job Training A Must For Linebackers

The Fighting Illini football team has struggled defending the run recently. When Martez Wilson went down with season-ending neck surgery, the linebacker corps was left with untested youngsters. Other teams have taken advantage of this inexperience. Co-Defensive Coordinator and linebacker coach Dan Disch has scrambled to find answers.

Illinois starts redshirt sophomore Ian Thomas, sophomore Russell Ellington and redshirt freshman Evan Frierson at the three linebacker positions. All are in their first year as starters. Aaron Gress is getting more time as well, and he is a junior college transfer in his first season of major college football.

Dan Disch acknowledges that other teams try to create schemes to exploit the Illini's lack of experience at linebacker.

"Yeah, in the run game particularly. Not as much with matchups particularly, but in the run game people try to scheme you up."

Losing Martez Wilson was a major blow, but Disch accepts it philosophically.

"He's gonna be a good player one day. But everybody in the country has injuries. Oklahoma had to play without their quarterback. You just plug the next guy in there as if he can play his best."

You can plug in the next one, but you can't make him play like an established veteran.

"You can't give them experience. You can work hard to try to accelerate the process, and they're getting valuable experience right now. But the reality is that experience is something you've got to earn. That's what makes players better at every level. With a young guy, you just keep working and stay positive with him. They've got to go through it.

"Some positions you can have freshmen playing. At some positions you can do it easier than others. But at offensive line and linebacker, it's a little different. It takes a little bit of time. It doesn't mean they can't do it, but for some guys the light doesn't click on quite as early. That's what we're going through right now.

"I tell you what, we've got guys giving effort and playing hard. That's all I can ask."

Illini fans have been spoiled the last couple years having middle linebackers J Leman and Brit Miller leading the way. Both are now with pro teams. But Disch reminds how long it took Leman to reach star status.

"People didn't realize, it was late his redshirt junior year when he became a really good player. That was '06 for us, and he had been playing football at the college level for four years. J was a good player, but no one knew it until he became one."

Thomas played last year, but it was mostly on special teams. He is undersized but aggressive. He is just beginning to show his ability.

"Ian is progressing. People don't realize, but this is his first year starting. They're all just young, but if the kids give you effort and come to work every day, then win, lose or draw you can't ask for much more."

Disch and the rest of the Illini staff are shocked and deeply hurt by their current 1-4 record. It is a tough time for all of them, but they are doing everything they know how to get it corrected.

"I know people are upset, but no one can be more upset than we are, the players and coaches. It's frustrating, but we're gonna finish out the season and keep playing, keep working. That's the way I've carried out my life and career, both in my personal life and my work. You've got to go back to work."

There is a tendency to work longer hours and get less sleep. Disch says that can be counterproductive.

"You do find yourself working harder and grinding, but you've got to find balance. We've always worked hard. You've got to get your sleep. The biggest thing you can do in trying times is stay positive and keep working. That's (Ron) Zook's motto, stay positive and don't let them get you down."

Disch is also one of the Illini's top recruiters, and he acknowledged the poor start has had a negative impact on recruiting. But they can still bring in good players if they find ones with the proper motivation.

"It's obviously harder when you're not winning ball games. Especially a couple years into this thing. People want to be part of winning.

"The thing we'll continue to sell is we think it's a good place and has a lot to offer. We know we're gonna win. But to get this place turned around on a consistent basis, we need great players and special kids.

"If you look at the history of this place, it's not easy to win consistently here. For anybody to get over the hump, you have to get kids consistently. So we're looking for a guy that wants to be part of getting Illinois to where it's not like this every couple years, where you can win consistently.

"We need guys who want to be part of something special and turn it around. We need to get guys with strong character, who know it's gonna be hard and want to be part of it."

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